Wednesday, November 30, 2016

From Wagons to Trains, Planes, & Automobiles

We hear a lot these days about the ‘transition’ team that America’s newest President is assembling.  The process marks an event that takes place at least every 8 years and sometimes as part of a 4-year cycle – depending on the outcome of a particular election.  When it comes to product innovation or industry transformations in the U.S., though, the sequence of events isn’t necessarily routine or predictable.  Such was the case for the massive transportation industry during the dawn of the 20th century.  At the time, many in the horse-drawn era found themselves surprised at the influence and excitement heralded by the new, internal combustion machines.  They couldn’t fathom a total transition to motorized power and, as a result, they were largely unprepared for the change. 

Overall, it’s an understandable perception.  With almost 200 years of this country’s history being dominated by horse-drawn vehicles, a sizeable number of folks had become hard set in their ways and felt things should remain the same.  Even so, it was a severely-limiting paradigm forming a lot of its own barriers to growth and success.  Generations had grown up using the products and had become financially dependent on the industry.  So, when a new, more advanced form of travel began to gain traction, the transformation was an unfamiliar and uneasy one for a large number of folks.  It was also one that required more capital for start-ups.  So, it’s not all that surprising that some found it a hard proposition to warm up to.  At the same time that so many were grappling with fears and resistance, others embraced and participated in the movement while still more waited to see what would happen. 

The early 1900’s amounted to a collision of worlds between horse-drawn and motorized transportation.

The study of this part of our history reminds me of the old adage pointing out that there are just 3 kinds of people in this world… Those that make things happen.  Those that watch what happens.  And those that wonder what happened!  Ultimately, those early days were a tumultuous time filled with rivalries, litigation, questions, and plenty of folks watching and wondering what the devil was going on. 

During the early 1900’s, there were hundreds of U.S. companies fighting for success in the newly-formed auto industry.  Ultimately, almost all of them failed.  Along the same lines, there were tens of thousands of horse-drawn vehicle makers and repairers struggling with their own perceptions of the horseless carriage.  For some, it was a fad.  For others, the vehicles were a luxury that would never be affordable.  Trade publications initially decried the evils of motorized transportation.  Salesmen missed no chance to deride the rubber-tired dragons whether they were gas, steam, or electric.  Associations banded together to see what might be done to slow or stop the acceptance of these new-fangled machines.  Articles were written discussing the noise, smell, cost, speed, power, unreliability, and other challenges associated with automobiles – some of those things continue to be a point of reference!

The earliest Flint wagons were adorned with scenic murals similar to those found on Concord stagecoaches.  Like many legendary brands, quality Flint wagons are now among the most difficult to find.

Even so, among the ranks, there were a number of legendary wagon makers that saw true opportunity in the ‘crisis’ that others perceived to be a direct threat.  Studebaker Bros. Manufacturing receives a fair – and deserving – amount of credit for recognizing the shifting tide.  There were other wagon makers, though, that are often overlooked in their roles related to motorized transportation.  Brands like Kentucky, Flint, Stoughton, Electric Wheel, Swab, Knapheide, Mitchell, Champion, and more were all active in their pursuit of various elements within the up-and-coming auto industry. 

Studebaker, for instance, not only designed and crafted cars, trucks, buses, and bodies but also built aircraft engines during WWII.  They had begun working on their own automobile in the late 1890’s, making every effort to continually reinforce their role as a transportation king pin.  After they ceased building wagons in 1920, they sold the related equipment and patterns while leasing their name to another powerful brand – the Kentucky Wagon Company of Louisville, Kentucky.  This move not only gave Kentucky another strong wagon brand to sell but provided a way for Studebaker loyalists to access original parts and maintenance on wagons that had been built in South Bend

Speaking of Kentucky (Wagon) Manufacturing Company; from their beginning in 1879, they were a force to be reckoned with.  Not only were they well capitalized but they were strong marketers producing tens of thousands of wagons per year.  During the 1930’s, the company was even more diversified as they took charge of Continental Car Company, producing a wide array of train cars.  The firm also made numerous early truck bodies and trailers, not to mention the manufacture and support of a full line of Dixie Flyer automobiles.  The direct descendant of Kentucky Wagon Company – Kentucky Trailer – has not only has survived but thrives as a dominant force in today’s trucking, specialty trailer, and body industries.  In fact, from commercial, medical, military, and government applications to motorsports, mobile broadcast production, moving & storage, package delivery, and enclosed auto haulers, Kentucky Trailer has been called, “the most innovative custom trailer manufacturer in the world.”

Kentucky has been a patriotic supplier to the U.S. Military for over a century.  

Kentucky Trailer produces a wide variety of custom work.  

In Flint, Michigan where much of the 20th century auto industry eventually found a home, the owners of Flint Wagon Works also launched a plan to build cars in the first decade of the new century.  This was done during the same time they were building wagons and the public was assured that they would continue manufacturing these vehicles just as they had since 1882.  Ultimately, the old wagon factory served as the origin of some of the earliest Buick and Chevrolet cars.

In Elizabethville, Pennsylvania, the Swab Wagon Company is still in business with the same name it carried in the 1800’s.  Like many others, Swab became actively involved in building bodies for early autos.  The company built their first fire-related vehicle in 1890 and, today, they specialize in the production of emergency vehicles for police, fire, and rescue needs as well as animal transports and utility bodies.  With roots to 1868, the brand is still family-owned and stands as one of the country’s oldest continuously-operated transportation manufacturers.

Located north of Hannibal, Missouri on the eastern bank of the Mississippi River, Quincy, Illinois is home to a pair of extraordinary survivors from the early wagon industry.  One of the oldest businesses in the city today is Knapheide.  Established in 1848 as Knapheide Wagon Company, the firm is well-known for its truck and van bodies, utility beds, truck caps, and tool boxes.    

As evidenced by this 1891 patent, innovation and a strong quest for excellence were a big part of Titan International’s DNA from the beginning.

Another of Quincy’s amazing success stories has deep roots in the tire and wheel industries.  Tracing its foundations to 1890, Titan International began life as the Electric Wheel Company.  As such, the company was an early producer of innovative metal wheels, wagons, tractors, crawlers, truck bodies, semi-trailers, rubber tires, carts, portable motors, and numerous other products.  Today, the firm is a powerful mainstay producing tires and wheels for agriculture, construction, forestry, mining, ATV, and lawn and garden applications.  As such, they supply tires and wheels for many well-known brands like John Deere, Case, New Holland, Kubota, and Goodyear.

So, there they are.  Just a few examples of how America’s horse-drawn wagon brands worked to overcome the trials of changing times.  Like so many early auto firms, most wagon builders met their demise by or during the Great Depression.  Nonetheless, as we’ve shared in today’s blog, a number of survivors have built strong foundations in the modern transportation industry.  Truth is, I suspect there are more companies with roots to wagon and carriage-making still around today than those who actually started out building automobiles.  It’s certainly an interesting supposition that points to even greater resilience and marketing savvy than many of our country’s first auto makers.

From field and farm to the highways and back roads, America’s early horse-drawn brands took on an overwhelming challenge to re-make themselves with reliable and relevant offerings.  It’s a heritage that’s been well rewarded with proven products, disciplined management, and forward-thinking momentum.  Ultimately, it’s no real surprise.  After all, that same focus on excellence, achievement, and customer satisfaction is what drove America’s first wheels to such prominence in the first place.  

Please Note:  As with each of our blog writings, all imagery and text is copyrighted with All Rights Reserved.  The material may not be broadcast, published, rewritten, or redistributed without prior written permission from David E. Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives, LLC

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Popular Western Vehicle Blogs

Exactly 4 weeks from today, we’ll mark 5 years of consistently writing and posting at least 1 blog per week.  It will total just over 270 times that I’ve sat down and wondered what part of America’s first transportation industry to share next.  Some weeks, the subject came easy.  On other occasions, I struggled – struggled to squeeze in the time and struggled to keep the diversity of topics fresh and pertinent.  Ultimately, there were days when I wondered if we could reach the 5-year milestone.  Even though we still have a few weeks to go, it’s good to see the goal so close.  So, as a bit of a reflection and nod to what continues to be an amazing research and writing experience, I thought we might look back at a few of the most popular posts to date.

Most of America's early wagon makers were small shops serving limited areas.

Some might feel that the older posts on our site would have inherently accumulated more traffic.  There’s a certain amount of logic to that line of thinking.  However, as I’ve reviewed the list of topics, it’s clear that some pieces have just naturally attracted more interest – regardless of the age of the post.  Case in point, several of my articles from this year have already risen to the top 10% in total views.      

As a general rule, there always seems to be a fair amount of interest anytime we’re focused on a particular vehicle type.  While many folks have their own idea of the perfect set of wheels, when it comes to our overall readership, it doesn’t seem to matter which type we focus on – farm, freight, ranch, coach, military, or business.  As long as the details are documented and the information is there, the traffic finds a way to the stories.  Our all-time, most popular posting was one I wrote back in 2012.  This particular piece wasn’t overly lengthy but it pointed out a number of ways that farm wagons are different.  It’s a message that we’ve shared for decades.  Unfortunately, some perceptions are hard to change and we continue to see how misperceptions not only degrade and oversimplify these old wheels but actually contribute to the demise of valuable history.  The truth is, no two of these workhorses will ever be exactly the same.  It might be variations in condition, accessories, features, or overall designs that create the contrast.  Or, it may be differences in the brand, age, completeness, levels of originality, or even the color and graphics that help set a particular vehicle apart.  Ultimately, every detail can be crucial when determining collectability, value, rarity levels, and overall provenance.

Stake rings were used for a multitude of purposes.  This photo shows the rings helping extend the support and height of the bolster stakes (standards).

The most popular blogs related to early vehicle brands (at least of the ones I’ve written) include Weber, Electric Wheel Company, Abbot-Downing, Moline, and Studebaker to name a few.  There are a great many more brands that we’ve yet to feature.  Some relatively unknown 19th century makes like Star, Whitewater, Kansas, and Jackson have also generated their fair share of interest.  

The early wagon and coaching industries were filled with larger-than-life personalities such as the Studebaker brothers in South Bend, Lewis Downing and J. Stephens Abbot of Concord, New Hampshire, early freighter and U.S. Senator, Alexander Caldwell (Kansas & Caldwell wagons), Peter Schuttler of Chicago, Henry Mitchell of Racine, the Nissen families in North Carolina, and so many more.  I’ve highlighted several of these legendary vehicle builders in my blogs.  At the end of the day, though, the craftsman that seems to regularly attract the most interest may also be the one whose history is among the murkiest – Joseph Murphy.  Established in 1825, the history of Murphy wagons is filled with hearsay – especially when comments are brought up about the giant freight wagons he allegedly built for use on the Santa Fe Trail.  The claims could be true but, to date, there has been a general lack of primary source evidence to back up the assertions.  It’s also regularly stated that Murphy was extremely quality-conscious with the manufacture of his wagons.  Just over a decade ago, we were able to independently verify that claim with the discovery of a number of original letters dating to the early and mid-1880’s.  Several of the notes were hand-written by Joseph Murphy and give explicit instructions on how and when to cut raw timber for use in his wagons.  The documents also lend some insight into the wood sizes and manufacturing needs Murphy’s business was experiencing.  We expect to have another opportunity in the fall of 2017 to share more about Mr. Murphy during a meeting with the Santa Fe Trail Association and National Stagecoach and Freight Wagon Association.  I’ll have more info on that conference as we get a little closer.  

Finally, we occasionally get requests to profile a particular topic.  Such was the case with an email we received back in 2013 asking about the inventor of the cast thimble skein.  It was a good question as the research makes clear that wagons used in 18th century events such as America’s Revolutionary War did not use cast skeins… someone please cue Hollywood to take note.

 The Wheels That Won The West® Archives house hundreds of original coaching images. The photo above features an Abbot-Downing Concord Coach used on the Good Intent stage line.

So, there it is – a brief list of highlights from the last 5 years of our blogs.  Do I have another 5 years of blogs in me?  Good question.  With increasingly challenging work schedules and vehicle projects, there may be a time down the road when we need to reduce the posting frequency a bit.  Who knows?  Maybe it will increase.  Whatever the case, we’re grateful for the privilege of overseeing so much history – and equally thankful to share time with you each week.  Don’t forget to stay in touch and pass along a few of your own stories.  We’d enjoy hearing from you.

Please Note:  As with each of our blog writings, all imagery and text is copyrighted with All Rights Reserved.  The material may not be broadcast, published, rewritten, or redistributed without prior written permission from David E. Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives, LLC

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Sheep Camp Wagon Patents

Not long ago, I read a piece estimating that 80% of the world’s gold has yet to be uncovered.  It’s one of those thought-provoking assertions that helps remind us of how much opportunity still exists in this world.  In a similar way, I believe that the vast majority of what there is to learn about America’s first transportation industry has yet to be discovered.  We may know a fair amount but most of us still don’t have all the pages of the early trade publications committed to memory.  It’s a humbling reminder of the extreme depth of this subject and how far we have to go to preserve what’s left.   

Truth is, in order to save and properly share our heritage, we must first be able to recognize it.  The only way to recognize and fully appreciate this part of yesterday is to develop a more solid understanding of the vehicles, brands, parts, processes, people, challenges, innovations, and industry practices. 

Unfortunately, I’m not aware of any shortcuts to acquiring so much information.  As a result, over the last 20-plus years, I’ve chased more than my fair share of discarded history.  Along the way, I’ve logged tens of thousands of hours in the hunt for old documents, forgotten artifacts, and other unknown details related to wheels from the horse-drawn era.  It’s an obsession that’s taken me all over the U.S. in a continual search for answers.  And, yes, the efforts can seem a little crazy even to me at times.  Nonetheless, the process has allowed us to recognize, recover, and gather thousands of period artifacts and images.  Along the way, we’ve been able to help preserve and showcase a world of information – including the establishment of time frames pointing to evolutionary differences in wagons and early western vehicles.  In other words, every old wagon isn’t the same as another. 

Housed in our Wheels That Won The West® Archives, this early photo of a Sheep Camp wagon shows a divided front door.  This was a common design, allowing the lower portion of the door to be closed while driving.

Some of these character traits can even highlight ways that competition drove innovation – just as it does today.  For instance, did you know that almost every type of early horse-drawn wagon had multiple patents attached to its design?  There is one early style, though, that I’ve yet to find a single patent directly associated with… the chuck wagon.  Typically built on early farm, military, and mountain wagon running gears (any of which may have had its own patents), these rolling kitchens were truly custom creations for almost every outfit.  Studebaker Manufacturing Company in South Bend, Indiana did offer and produce a ‘Round-Up’ chuck wagon for use on ranches in the early 1880’s.  Even though it was equipped with Studebaker’s own version of a chuck box and pantry, it was merely a ‘ready-made’ chuck wagon and wasn’t patented. (Although the steel skeins on the running gear were).  It’s a different story for a wealth of other wagon styles though.  From farm, freight, and business wagons to military and even sheep wagons, each of these vehicle types had some connection to legally protected ideas. 

To that point, I recently uncovered what may be the only patents ever granted for Sheep Camp wagons – also known as sheep wagons and sheepherder wagons.  As far as I know, today’s blog is the first public notice of these patents in well over a century.  Each is a discovery we were fortunate to make and, likewise, each is another reminder of how we’re often required to adjust what we thought we knew about America’s first transportation industry.

The oldest sheep wagon patent I came across was applied for in January of 1899.  It primarily dealt with ways to keep the living quarters more comfortable from outdoor conditions.  More specifically, the patent describes construction features engineered to keep the wagon interior “absolutely wind-proof and dust-proof.”  Additionally, the design was complemented with a large hook mounted on the side of the wagon for holding harness.  When not in use, the hook was fashioned to fold flush and out of the way.

Filed in 1908, the second patent also came well after the commonly acknowledged creation of the sheep wagon in the 1880’s.  Yet, almost every feature listed in this patent seems to be a replication of elements that were likely already included on many sheep wagons.  It’s hard to see a substantial difference that would have allowed for a legitimate patent.  Even so, the legal proclamation was granted in 1909.   

This illustration is part of a Sheep Camp wagon patent that was granted in 1909.  

Like so many other sheepherder wagons, the 1909 patent calls for a bed to lie transverse to the length of the wagon box.  A pull-out table was located under the bed, side bunks doubled as seating and storage, an indoor stove was positioned near the door, the door, itself, was divided in half, and the rear window included a hinged and sliding sash.  Additionally, there were a host of other commonly-seen accoutrements listed in the patent. 

It’s possible that, with large national manufacturers like Studebaker, Stoughton, Mitchell, Milburn, Winona, Kentucky, and Racine-Sattley all taking an interest in Sheep Camp beds, the attention may have caused some to want to secure ownership rights on the most popular designs.  At this point, it’s hard to say.  We just don’t have enough details to know on what grounds this particular patent was submitted and granted.  As is the case in so many discoveries, the finding of one piece of a puzzle may help answer some questions.  At the same time, it can open the door to a whole new can of worms.

Today, Sheepherder wagons are still extremely popular.  From collectors and resort operators to private guest quarters, working ranches, and competitions, the custom creations have a way of providing a world of unforgettable memories in a truly ‘moving’ design.  

Please Note:  As with each of our blog writings, all imagery and text is copyrighted with All Rights Reserved.  The material may not be broadcast, published, rewritten, or redistributed without prior written permission from David E. Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives, LLC

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Early Transportation Innovations

It seems to me that it might be easier to discuss the existence of the Easter bunny compared to the challenges of convincing some that America’s first transportation industry was full of innovation.  After all, antique horse-drawn vehicles are just raw and rudimentary efforts that are only slightly elevated over stone age tools, right?  Of course, that’s wrong but some perceptions can be hard to overcome.

Decades ago, when I began researching this subject, I came across a number of period materials outlining the size and complexity of America’s early transportation industry.  It was the first of many breakthroughs helping highlight the need for sufficient historical reports.  In the process, the discoveries opened doors to countless intriguing – and still untold – stories.  I’ll never forget the first time I accessed U.S. patent records related to horse-drawn wagons.  With thousands upon thousands of patents filed and granted in the nineteenth century, it was dizzying to see so much ingenuity occurring in what is often called ‘simpler’ times. 

Equally impressive, many of these ideas have served as foundational concepts for a wealth of advancements in the auto industry.  After all, horse drawn vehicles were the primary method of wheeled transportation in America for roughly 200 years and many of the most basic requirements remain similar today.  During the mid to late 1800’s and early 1900’s, numerous designs were created, adapted, and evolved for purposes of the day.  Some of those ideas have even become part of our most modern needs and activities.

So, with intellectual property being such a hot topic and well-known part of business these days, I thought we’d take a look at some wheeled ideas born at least a century ago that are still being used.

The Pop-Up Camper…

Surely, one of the great space-saving innovations of the mid to late 20th century is the pop-up camper.  It’s easy to tow, stow, maneuver, and use while packing a wealth of space for outdoor camping trips.  It seems natural that something so advanced would have been developed by modern minds focused on a shrinking world and the need for efficient, cost-effective, multi-purpose designs, right?  Well, not exactly. 

Believe it or not, these concepts were first engineered for and incorporated into horse-drawn wagons.  That’s right… Wagons.  Even in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, camping was a popular activity in America.  So, it’s fairly easy to find a number of patents covering variations of pop-up and adjustable camp transportation. 

 This patent for a pop-up wagon camper was filed more than a century ago in 1916.

  Developed in the early 1890's, this patent for a wagon camper shows tremendous similarities to modern RV's. 

While not a pop-up design, the McMaster Camping Car (wagon) was one of America’s first true RV campers.  It was patented in the 1880’s, included a host of home-style comforts, and was actually used on excursions within Yellowstone National Park.  I wrote a blog on this ultra-rare vehicle some time ago. 

The Refrigerated Truck…

From beverages and perishable foods to medical needs, refrigerated trucks and trailers are a very common sight today.  Incredibly, it’s an idea with roots to horse-drawn wagons and dates to as early as the 1870’s. 

This beverage cooler was designed for horse-drawn wagons. It dates to the early part of 1879 and incorporates block ice and ventilation fans for optimum refrigeration.

Mobile Scissor Lifts…

In today’s worlds of manufacturing, construction, maintenance, and repair, the convenience of mobile scissor lifts continues to play a vital role.  More secure than simple extension ladders and having an expanded work space, these rolling scaffolds are equipped for a multitude of uses.  Even so, it’s a concept that’s been a part of American life for well over a century.  In fact, the 1904 patent image below clearly shows the benefits of having an adjustable platform on wheels.  

  Submitted to the U.S. Patent office in 1904, this unique scissor-lift concept has become a valued part of life in the modern era.

Built-in Tailgate Steps…

Those 21st century ‘step’ additions to the rear bumpers and tailgates of pickup trucks must be an overdue idea, right?  I mean, climbing into the back of a truck bed can be hard on the back and knees, especially if you’re carrying a load.  Well, back in the 1890's, the challenge was the same for our ancestors.  As a result, having a collapsible step attached to a wagon’s end gate (tailgate) was an equally important idea to some folks.  Take a look at the patent image below. 

 Two Wisconsin men are credited with this nineteenth century patent featuring a built-in step to the back of a wagon box.   Filed with the patent office in 1896, the idea has been emulated in modern pickup truck designs.

It seems that the old adage about ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same,’ still has a lot of merit.  As such, the early innovations I shared above are just a few of the ideas initiated during the world of wagons that have found their way into modern life.  Twin axle steering control, fixed axle steering, leaf spring suspension, bead locks for wheels/tires, run-flat tires, convertible tops, vehicle fenders, dump bed designs, automatic brakes, and so many other concepts that were drawn up in the horse-drawn era remain as pertinent ideas today. 

No matter how deceivingly simple it may appear, America’s first transportation industry and the specialized needs of wagons moving west created a world of innovation.  It’s a legacy so strong that we're still benefiting from ideas born in the horse-drawn age.    

Please Note:  As with each of our blog writings, all imagery and text is copyrighted with All Rights Reserved.  The material may not be broadcast, published, rewritten, or redistributed without prior written permission from David E. Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives, LLC